Education Versus Training: The Problem With Authority

Imposing, threatening, or forcing children to do something only produces obedience, not learning. You won't be transmitting values or giving them tools. Today, we'll take a look at the problem with authority.
Education Versus Training: The Problem With Authority

Last update: 03 June, 2021

Educating a child is a complicated task. It’s normal to make mistakes and, sometimes, the best way to proceed isn’t very clear. However, we must understand that, if our objective is to educate emotionally healthy and independent children, we can’t resort to threatening them, forcing them, or imposing our own will. Doing so doesn’t produce learning. That’s the problem with authority.

Often, we’re more focused on the result than on the process. We want perfect, obedient, respectful, orderly, and studious children. But instilling values takes time, patience, dialogue, and a lot of love.

If we focus so much on the result, we’ll forget that what’s truly relevant is planting the seeds from which a wonderful and happy human being will be born. Seeds that need time to germinate.

The problem with authority: you train children, but you don’t educate them

It’s easy to resort to authority when we want our children to do something because it’s effective in the short term. Indeed, if we threaten a child, they’ll probably end up yielding to our orders. If we offer them a reward, we’ll get him to act as we want. However, what lessons are we really teaching them when we do this? What are they actually learning?

A couple playing on the floor with their toddler daughter.

Without punishment: the problem with authority

Imagine that your child loves chocolate and wants to eat a whole bar, but you say no. You tell them that if they eat it, then they won’t be allowed to watch any TV. Or you impose your will by hiding the chocolate on the top shelf of the pantry without giving any explanation other than, “Because I said so”.

What we achieve with this type of behavior is that, as soon as the child reaches the chocolate and knows that you’re not watching, they’ll eat as much as they can. They’ll act simply to avoid punishment but without really having learned anything. It’d be much more beneficial to take the time to explain to our little ones that eating too much can harm their health and, therefore, it’s better to take only a small portion.

Obviously, this option takes more time. Your child won’t accept it immediately and will question you and insist. However, if you repeat the arguments with love and firmness, the message will eventually sink in.

True, it’ll have taken longer to reach the goal, but not only will you have succeeded in getting them to give up chocolate, but you’ll also have taught them about health and self-care.

It’s also important to remember that punishments, threats, and impositions damage the bond between parents and children. The child may develop resentment, rage, or anger against the parents because they don’t feel listened to or respected by them, only intimidated. If we opt for dialogue, then trust and bonds of affection will be strengthened.

The problem with authority: no rewards

Although it may seem that prizes are a good educational alternative, they also have drawbacks. As is the case with punishments, acting for the sake of a reward doesn’t generate significant learning either.

Several studies have shown that intrinsic motivation is much more powerful than extrinsic motivation when it comes to producing behavior. In other words, it’s easier for children to act based on solid arguments and values that they’ve internalized, than in search of material rewards that are provided to them from the outside.

Parents playing and snuggling with their daughter on the couch.

For younger children, attention from their parents is the greatest reinforcement there is. Therefore, smiles, praise, or words of encouragement are the best alternative. They want to please their parents; making them proud produces a greater and healthier motivation than any toy or trinket.

Even so, it’s important to always provide them with solid and convincing arguments when we ask them to do something. Formulas such as, “If you make your bed every day, I’ll buy you a present on Sunday!” Aren’t the most appropriate. Because, implicitly, we’re sending the message that making their bed is an obligation and it’s something negative that they must endure to obtain a reward.

In reality, it’s better to invite them to make their bed as an act of responsibility and care for their space. This way, their autonomy is reinforced, they feel more capable and self-confident, and they develop their independence. Making their bed will then be a daily act that’ll have a purpose of its own, without the need for something external.

Authority is a sprint, but educating is a long-distance race

To summarize, rewards and punishments can have quick effects, but not lasting or healthy ones. We shouldn’t strive for our children to obey but, rather, for them to learn. We should help them acquire the tools and values that will serve them for life. Educating is a long-distance race, and authority doesn’t educate.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.